Sweet Nothings: A Road Trip Through Portugal’s Wild West
15 August, 2017
We are propped up on the shore of Praia do Salto on the coast of Portugal's Alentejo region. I've got that hazy feeling that you get after a long day in the sun and one too many glasses of wine. I look to my left, where the sand stretches into the distance and every cove is broken up by jagged, biscuit-coloured cliffs. Ahead, the ocean and sky melt into one shimmering body of cornflower blue. The waves bounce and froth against two glossy rocks, to which clusters of mussels cling. To my right, a sandy hill arches over us, topped by a blanket of sea daisies, foxgloves, poppies and wild thyme. And we are naked. Utterly, brazenly naked in the blazing light of day. I instinctively shift position to preserve some modesty, then realise that nobody is around. Because this is Portugal's wild west, and nobody is ever around.
For the past week we have been travelling through the Costa Vicentina and inland Alentejo, sharing long, winding roads with only the odd farmer or lycra-clad cyclist. Reigned over by flaming mimosa trees, almond blossoms and pine trees, the roads have varied from the smooth and scenic to the dilapidated, testing the wheels of our car with cavernous potholes, sand dunes and knife-edged cliffs.
The days have been filled with long swims in freshwater lakes and lunches of buttery prawns, octopus salad and tinned fish served with local sourdough. Every meal has ended with a ritualistic shot of eye-watering medronho, always accompanied by the insistence that "the second tastes better than the first".
With our limbs browned, our hair a shade lighter and our lungs filled with sea air, we ended the journey in the ancient city of Évora. After tracing the uneven cobbles and watching the place turn gold in the evening sun, we went for dinner at a tiny restaurant run by a husband and wife. They served us clams swimming in garlic along with jamón and roasted cheese with quince. The murmur of the city was like coming up for air. We felt as though we'd been alone for a week.
Portugal's rural areas are a hushed secret. Driving from empty beach to unmarked valley, we kept expecting to find a tidal wave of tourists at every turn. Surely people know about this place? Surely we couldn't be the only ones basking on the silky sand with miles of yellow flowers shivering on the hills around us?
And yet the roads remained a blank page for the entire week. In crossing the threshold into this untapped pocket of the world, time seemed to melt away. The land felt like a secret that can only be kept quiet for so long. Like the leafy oranges and the perfumed lemons that grow from the trees in the springtime, Portugal's wild west is ripe for exploration. Now is the time to take a bite.
The plan was to spend the week in an old VW camper van. What could be dreamier than unrolling a map and setting off in an antique motorhome, with the windows down and the open road ahead? Based in the Algarve, Siesta Campers lovingly restores antique camper vans to rent out to visitors exploring the area.
Ours was named Martha, a picture-perfect 1970s VW the colour of pistachio ice cream. We anticipated sleeping on her fold-down bed on roadsides, beaches and rural campsites. Our aim was to reach Alentejo by sunset, an easy 120km journey northwest. But with a wheel the size of a kitchen sink and a top speed of 80km an hour, things did not pan out quite as we'd hoped. After bumbling along the coastal tip of the Algarve, stopping at small beaches, dusty villages and seafood restaurants (the kilo of fresh squid submerged in lemony butter at Gigi's was a particular high point), we consulted our map. In seven hours we had made it just under 20km from Faro airport.
With heavy hearts and aching arms, we made the embarrassingly short journey back to Siesta's body shop, which was scented with a curious mix of oil and orange blossom. A vehicle like that, the owner, Claire, pointed out is for "slowing down", for patiently scaling the Algarve and sleeping underneath the stars. As much as we'd felt ourselves unravel like spools of thread in the single afternoon that we'd spent in Portugal, we had a lot of ground to cover - dusty, off-road ground that Martha and her antique suspension did not quite suit. We bid her fibreglass face, formica tables and caramel-coloured leather farewell and headed off to a local car hire to pick up a more suitable - although far less whimsical - set of wheels.
As Faro finally began to disappear into the distance, we left behind a slice of the Algarve that is occupied by throngs of tourists - stag weekenders, golfers and holidaymakers in search of sun and menus in English. As we pushed on toward the Costa Vicentina, the wild, unscathed coastline on the tip of southwest Portugal, the motorway ended. We suddenly found ourselves tracing wide roads lined with wild flowers and red-clay cliffs topped with dense thickets of pine trees.
We had entered the Natural Park of Southwest Alentejo, a 120km stretch of protected land that spans wind-whipped coastlines and secluded farmland. A few hours in, we plonked the car at the edge of a deserted track and walked down a sandy path. At the end of the road we reached Torre de Aspa, the coastline's highest point. This soaring cliff provides a sweeping view of the golden beaches and the raging ocean below.
After passing through the pink-flushed village of Odeceixe, which spills down the Ribeira de Seixe below the winding coastal road, we found ourselves on a table overlooking the ocean at the bustling, zero-frills Restaurante Azenha do Mar. Although fresh seafood is just as ubiquitous in this region as men in at caps, the locals told us that this is some of the best around. We ordered a stack of spicy tinned sardines and a bucket of coral-coloured prawns, and sat de-shelling them at the bar.
That night was spent in Zambujeira do Mar, a whisper-quiet fishing village with toothy cliffs, sun-baked forests and shacks threaded with nets and faded buoys. Local fishermen and their families pile into Restaurante O Sacas as the day ends. Perched on the brink of a cliffs, it is run by a stern-faced family, who serve up the day's catches along with clattering bowls of shellfish and cups of bitter coffee.
This area feeds into the Rota Vicentina, a 450km network of nature trails, including the Historical Way and the Fisherman's Trail. The latter is a single track, only accessible by foot, which traces the cliff edges of some of southwest Portugal's most remote beaches, coves and fishing spots. We thought about joining the walk, but agreed that it was getting far too late, and opted to go to dinner instead.
There is only one downside to Alentejo's empty roads - when it comes to navigating, there are few places to turn for help. Which explains why we spent three hours snaking up and down farm tracks and mountain trails in search of Pego das Pias, a secluded swimming spot, one of many in Portugal said to be guarded by mythical female spirits known as mouras encantadas. Here an emerald river is bookmarked by toothy limestone gullies, which sink into the water and flutter with wild oregano. We tripped our way across the rocks, past a handful of bathers standing waist- deep in the water with their dogs chasing sticks, and bedded down a few boulders away. We spent an afternoon dipping into the water and clambering over the hot rocks for views of the river disappearing into the distance.
Porto das Barcas restaurant can be found a few kilometres away from Milfontes, a sun-bleached beach town with white stone houses and shops selling local wine and handwoven baskets. Local families gather at its tables, which are spread across terracotta tiles and out onto a sea-facing terrace. Along with cold glasses of citrusy Alentejo white, we squabbled over fat prawns and clams bathing in garlic and lemon. Restored, and with enough garlic on our breath to take down an ox, we got back on the road. We headed downhill towards the Praia do Salto past shadowy, time-beaten farmhouses with roofs that were collapsing inwards.
Our home for the evening was the guesthouse Herdade da Matinha, a restored farmhouse set within 110 hectares of paddocks, orange groves, aloe vera tangles and cork oak forests.
It is found down a cratered gravel lane through a shady copse. We spent the afternoon wandering round sweet-smelling gardens, dipping into a wood-decked pool and making use of the many outdoor beds before settling into the art-littered living room for a bottle of regional red wine. ("This one's strong!" the manager told us. She was not wrong.) Keen walkers and Portuguese families filled the rustic, colourful dining room that evening for a three-course set menu of local sh and veg. We finished the wine by the open fire, with the doors to the orange grove flung open.
"This is the best moment of my life!" cried a voice behind me. It was Issy, who had just mastered the art of trotting on horseback through sand. We were speeding up on the silky shore, with washed-up mussels and shells crunching underfoot.
The vet Luís Lamas had greeted us from the sandy paddock of Herdade da Aberta Nova, not far from the paradisiacal Lagoas de Santo André e Sancha nature reserve. He is a long-distance horse rider (his latest achievement is 160km) who escorts visitors on short or week-long riding experiences in the landscape around the farm. Brushing o our warnings of "instability" and "zero core strength" with a laugh, he helped us up on to two speckled Lusitano mares before boarding his own.
Luís waved us o after a glass of regional wine ("we must"), sending us in the direction of Melides, where the beach splits the town from a yawning lagoon. Locals smoke cigars on benches outside the local tabacaria, while birds circle the chiming blue and the white clock tower in the main square. We tracked down Luís's favourite restaurant, O Melidense. The canary-yellow eatery has a loud, steam-filled kitchen at its heart, a bar lined with jugs of red wine and an upstairs terrace overlooking the town's rolling terracotta roofs, littered with fishing nets and flapping paper tablecloths. Locals pour in for classic family food, such as soup with eggs or tomato rice and bacalhau (a traditional salted cod dish).
The next stop was Vila de Frades, an old winemaking village hidden in the folds of undulating vineyards. We headed uphill to Quetzal estate, an airy work of oak, botanical tiles and floor-to-ceiling windows. Although closing time had already come and gone, the sommelier Ana Coutinho let us sample a few creations - our favourite was an oaky white that costs €4 a bottle. Looking out over the deserted village below, we asked if the area is always so still. "Always," she answered. "The people in these villages have no idea how beautiful it is here."
The young, city-born chef Pedro Pena Bastos opened his first restaurant in the celebrated 13th-century winemaking estate of Esporão. The gleaming white building sits on top of a slanting vineyard, with a smattering of outdoor seating pointing towards miles of olive trees and lakes beyond. Guests at Pedro's restaurant are offered set menus of seasonal, meticulously assembled dishes inspired by the land that surrounds them.
Pedro greeted us on the porch, where we were submerged in a mid-afternoon slump in the sun, and led us through to the sleek, minimalistic dining room for a tour. The chef has sent critics into a spin with his unpretentious food, which combines old family recipes (including delicious butter inspired by his grandmother) with fine-dining methods (artful plates of mackerel with mandarin and miso, four-year-old oysters with seaweed vinegar, or tender pork neck with wild fennel) and an understanding of Alentejo's bounty of produce. Pedro told us: "The land is a constant inspiration for me," as he brought through a tray of coffee with sticks of cinnamon to stir them. "We have a landscape full of food here. I see Portuguese people returning to nature. When I first came here, the pace of life drove me a little crazy. I have to go back to the city all the time, but I find myself craving that hit of nature."
After lunch, woozy from wine, we accompanied Pedro and his sous-chef into the hills to forage. Plucking kale, edible flowers and moss from the ground, we stood in streams of sunlight underneath the olive trees, discussing the week behind us. Pedro's food is a pure expression of the region in all its colourful, sweet-smelling glory. It felt like the perfect end to the week. "Nature is constantly giving us gifts," Pedro said as we bounced back to the restaurant down another dirt track. "All you have to do is look for them."